Fantanesh’s story, Ethiopia
Photos by © Girma BertaSexuality Education
“The day I started my period I thought, ‘What’s happening to me?!’ And it was the hardest question to answer because I couldn’t answer it myself … I want every young person in Ethiopia to have access to sex education, to be aware of their physical changes during puberty, to know about themselves and to make informed decisions in their life.”
This is Fantanesh, an 18-year-old youth advocate and peer educator on sexual health and rights in Ethiopia. Little did she know that scary, bewildering day when she first started her period, would be one of the experiences that gave her the courage to later speak out. She would speak out for what she now knows is hers, for what she needed to understand inside and out and for what she had to protect – her body. And what started as being about herself became about the rights of young people across Ethiopia. This is the story of Fantanesh.
Fantantesh is a youth leader and advocate on Comprehensive Sexuality Education, or Mahareb as it’s referred to in Amharic, in targeted schools in Addis Ababa. After taking the course herself two years ago, she quickly fell into the role of organising and encouraging adolescents to not only learn about their sexuality, but to engage in decisions being made about it through a global programme and intiative called, Get Up Speak Out.
“Sex Education makes me know and understand what friendship and supporting each other means. One of the messages that is still in my mind is about knowing boundaries and ‘No means No’. Young girls, including me, in Ethiopia are subjected to different forms of violence and harmful traditional practices. I believe that learning about my sexuality, our sexuality, allows us to ask and demand our rights and say ‘NO’ for the things we see wrong.”
As a youth advocate and leader on sexual rights and health (SRH), Fantanesh doesn’t shy away from what’s heavily stigmatised and considered ‘taboo’ by many in Ethiopia. At the core of such beliefs is low awareness of SRH among adolescents, where only around 33% of young people use modern contraceptives and teenage pregancy sits at 12%. Furthermore only 51% of school girls know about menstruation and its management and over 50% avoid going to school at this time as a result.
“With my peers, I discuss sexuality openly, including issues most young Ethiopians are ashamed to talk about. For instance, about relationships and sexual health, about unwanted pregnancy and the use of a condom … I advise young people to keep themselves safe, enjoy their sexuality, be bold, and be a part of Meharebe or any life skills education available in their school.”
“Even with my other friends who haven’t been in Meharebe sessions, discussion about sexuality is sometimes very difficult. To be open. We are very influenced by the conservative culture. In my village, we don’t talk about sexuality openly, as it is considered as initiating children to commit themselves to early sexual activities.”
Fantanesh grew up in the suburbs of Addis Ababa in a family as one of five children and currently lives at home. Coming from a low-income family, she is expected to contribute to helping make ends meet and next to her studies these responsibilities play a big role in her life. Here she is seen opening up her father’s business, a small kiosk shop before heading to school.
Binding together this strong, ambitious young girl’s family and school duties is her faith. “My faith gives me peace and strength in life’’, Fantanesh reflects.
As a young person herself, Fantanesh can talk openly and relate to her peers about their sexuality and the important issues they will be faced with, such as regarding choice, consent and respect.
“I remember on the first day I ever took a sex education class, we started with a course, called ‘The World Starts with Me’ and how the room echoed with these words. The world starts with me, I thought! From that day forward I felt deeply and realised how unique I was, and unique I am today. Now, I know myself so much better, how I will contribute to the world and the goals I want to achieve. I will address the SRHR problems, helping other young people across Ethiopia to learn what I now know to be true.’’
Fantanesh’s story is part of Get Up Speak Out, a five-year programme working to improve the (knowledge of) rights and sexual health of young people in seven countries. The programme is led by Rutgers and implemented in collaboration with: Aidsfonds; CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality; Dance4Life; IPPF; and, Simavi, as well as with six alliance partners in-country. The SRHR Alliance in Ethiopia is the country partner driving the implementation of this project. You can find more information about this programme here.